Until Death

One of the reasons I wanted to write Greg and Elena into a relationship is that they’re two people who’ve lived close together for years, and who often forget how well they actually know each other.

This, my friends, is marriage.*

Yesterday, when cleaning out my dad’s office (the single most daunting job in the whole place, which is saying something when it’s one 10×12 room in a 2700-square-foot space), I ran across my parents’ wedding photo.

Woman in a wedding dress standing next to a man in a tuxedo
June 3, 1961

I’d never seen this one before. I’ve seen one of my mother on the steps of the church where they were married (we were married in the same church; I had a similar photo taken), and one blurry shot of my cousins walking down the aisle inside. It was a very small wedding: my mother’s dad was there, but her mother wouldn’t come, and my dad’s parents were stationed far away and somehow couldn’t manage to get a flight. My cousins have been in and out of our lives throughout the decades, but my dad in particular has an unending loyalty toward them because they were the only family who deigned to attend his wedding.

I knew my dad’s parents well enough to hope they felt bad about skipping the wedding, but realistically, I expect they didn’t. My mom’s mom? I didn’t know her as well. I’m not sure why she didn’t attend. The stated excuse, IIRC, was expense, and maybe that was true. But I’m not sure I find it forgivable either way.

I always cry at weddings. They’re such absurd acts of optimism. “Yes, I promise to stick with you, half-formed person, for the rest of our lives, no matter what I learn about you that I don’t already know, and no matter how serendipity decides to screw us over.” Spouse, before we married, didn’t really understand why the idea of marriage scared the hell out of me, and I didn’t know how to explain it to him.

And of course some people get divorced, and some stay married and unhappy. Some get lucky, and find the ebb and flow of life is easier with the two of them confronting it together. I’ve been lucky. My parents? Well. I know better than to make observations about someone else’s marriage from the outside.

Where was I? Oh, yes: Greg and Elena.

So much of marriage is the simple act of living together and meshing your day-to-day routines. One big point of reconciliation: living space. Cleanliness and clutter. It’s such a mundane thing, and it’s not something most of us consider when we’re in a hormonal haze. I was aware of being a cluttered person when I married, and it worried me. Still does, to be honest, although we’ve come to a sort of equilibrium: I’m not as bad as I used to be, and he puts up with more than he’s happy with.

But we both do our best, and that’s the point.

When my daughter was small, an online friend of mine got pregnant. She and her partner had extensive, terribly sensible talks about splitting the parenting tasks: wakeups and feedings and changing and doctor’s appointments and everything else, divided right down the middle. They would take turns.

Which is absurd, of course, but I couldn’t tell her that. Not every family has children, but a baby is a time-compressed representation of what marriage is: there’s a stack of things that absolutely must be done, and some can wait and some can’t, and some are things you’re better at than your partner so you’ll do them 100% of the time, and some of them are things you don’t care about that drive them nuts, so either they do them 100% of the time or you try and sometimes get it wrong, and nobody gets enough sleep and you love each other but sometimes dammit why can’t they do it your way just this once and let you have some peace?

And that’s what a good marriage looks like.

I have this theory that in a good marriage, conflict shows up when you forget you know who this other person is. When The Kid was small, Spouse and I would both get overwhelmed sometimes, and it always helped to talk about it and recognize that yes, we were both putting in everything we could, it was just there was so very much to do. We reminded each other, and ourselves, that we were a team with a unified goal.

It’s when you start trying to fill in the blanks with reasons that are more about yourself and your own insecurities that you can get into trouble. And…I think this is more common in marriage than it is in less steeped-in-each-other relationships.** The power of a solid partnership is amazing, and it’s very easy to forget you are, in fact, totally separate people, and that without check-ins you’re going to drift. And the better you know each other, the less likely you are to notice the drift until it becomes a problem, and then you need to know how to argue, which everybody hates*** and nobody anywhere teaches.

Greg and Elena are that old married couple that squabbles about stupid things and makes all their friends roll their eyes, but stands back to back when the invasion comes. They know each other extremely well, but they don’t talk about that, and their assumptions come from severely skewed places. Underneath every argument and period of estrangement, though, is an absolute certainty that they’re on the same side.

In FictionLand, I can turn that relationship into whatever I want. I can make it work or make it fail, and I can give them whatever ending I choose.

You can’t do that for people in the real world.

You have some control over your own relationship, of course, but only some. There’s a whole other person there, and if you’re lucky (and I do think a certain amount of it is luck, especially when it comes down to external events), the ebbs and flows of life never pull you apart too far.

It’s kind of nuts we so often choose life partners when we barely know each other. It’s kind of marvelous it works out as often as it does.

But it doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes people escape, rebuild, move on with their lives, partnered or not, battered but happier. Sometimes people stay, for so many reasons, and they never see what the alternative might have been. The calculus for this varies by both individual and culture, and it seems pretty much everywhere there’s a lot of pressure to “make it work,” even when it’s so clearly not working.****

I’m probably not the only writer who becomes conscious, at some point, of working out their own stuff on the page. Greg and Elena aren’t me and Spouse, except in the way that every character I write is both me and everyone I’ve ever met. Neither are they my parents, who chose to stay together, over and over again. Greg and Elena are fictional people I can assign both a conflict and a solution. They’re a simulator. They let me choose a desired outcome, and experiment with different scenarios until I get what I want. They are my personified desire to fix the relationships of the people I love—a power I’m never going to have in the real world.

Not sure of the end of their story yet, not really. I suppose you never know until you get there.

* I’m using “marriage” as cultural shorthand here. This applies to any long-term committed relationship.

** Having said this…I’ve seriously effed up some friendships in my life. So maybe it’s common everywhere. Or maybe it’s just me.

*** I know some people who enjoy arguing. As friends I can cope, sort of. In a partner I’d find it completely exhausting. Find you a partner with a similar arguing tolerance.

**** This is a privileged view, I know. Divorce requires money to initiate, and a certain level of self-sufficiency. In some places the right to divorce is dodgy and limited, and the expectation to marry overrides modern ideas of compatibility and romantic love. The legal and cultural aspects of marriage are a lot more complicated than what I’m writing about here.

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